Sheikh Hamza Yusuf is an unusual figure in American Islam. He is an American-born, white convert who is deeply schooled in Islamic theology — allowing him to easily bridge the gap of understanding between the West and Islam.
Yusuf was born Mark Hanson in Walla Walla, Wash. He became a Muslim in 1977 and studied for 10 years in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and North and West Africa. He has traveled around the world, giving talks on Islam.
Yusuf founded Zaytuna Institute, which has "established an international reputation for presenting a classical picture of Islam in the West and which is dedicated to the revival of traditional study methods and the sciences of Islam," according to his online biography.
Laurie Goodstein, religion reporter for The New York Times, compares Yusuf's communication skills to former President Clinton's.
"He has that Clinton ability to focus in on whoever he's speaking to, look them directly in the eyes and make them feel like they are the only one in the room even though there might be 200 people in the room," she says.
John Esposito of Georgetown's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding says Yusuf has been working on a project to translate key texts of Islam that are important to the Muslim community and that may also be of interest to non-Muslims.
Esposito says Yusuf has "put a lot of time into the whole area of education [and] access to information... to kind of say, 'Here are the true sources of your faith. That's what you should be looking to. Look to the Koran. The Koran has space for Christians and Jews. And you need to remember and affirm that. You also need to look at our classical texts, rather than the texts that come from the extremists or the terrorists.'"